ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Scottrade Center was divided near mid-court at the border of Shocker Nation and the Red Sea.
This afternoon, Shocker Nation had the most to cheer about.
In a battle of attrition, the No. 21 Wichita State Shockers (30-4, 17-1) won their second Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in four years, defeating the Illinois State Redbirds (27-6, 17-1), 71-51. Free throws were the difference, Wichita State had 37 attempts — making 26 — while Illinois State was limited to 19.
“They were really physical. When we had — I think our foul trouble almost made us foul more,” said Illinois State head coach Dan Muller. “They have five guys on the court at all times that are threats, and it’s hard to guard.”
Illinois State never led. The Shockers jumped ahead with a pair of McDuffie free throws in the opening minute.
MVC Tournament Most Outstanding Player Conner Frankamp, as on Saturday, sent the fans behind the bench into a frenzy with his first triple. MVC Freshman of the Year Landry Shamet scored six of his 14 points, giving Wichita State a 13-4 lead.
The Redbirds answered quickly. MVC Player of the Year Paris Lee hit his first triple. Lee, as well as sophomore Keyshawn Evans, kept Frankamp’s extended explosion at bay while pulling Illinois State within four.
Though, every time Illinois State cut the deficit to a single possession, Wichita State responded by adding multiple baskets.
After an Evans triple with 10:50 remaining, Shockers junior Shaq Morris went on a personal 4-0 run. Moreover, when a McIntosh layup withered the margin to three, Wichita State went on a 9-1 burst, capped by a Darall Willis Jr. tip-in. Gregg Marshall’s squad had gained their first double-digit edge of the day.
Although Lee sliced the Shockers’ advantage to eight before halftime, Illinois State fell behind by 13 within the first 100 seconds of the second half.
The Redbirds were within single-digits for a final time with 15:54 remaining in regulation.
Nine consecutive Shockers free throws ballooned a nine-point lead into a 17-point gash.
“Clearly, this is the best offensive team they’ve had, might be the best defense,” Muller said of Wichita State. “They don’t have one senior, I mean, they’re really, really, really good.”
Frustration boiled over for Illinois State in the form of technical fouls by Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh.
Two more of McDuffie’s 16 points opened the lead to 21 with under five minutes remaining.
Following the clock hitting triple zeroes, Lee and McIntosh walked to the locker room with towels draped over their heads. Uncertainty had now engulfed them.
Despite the box score showing inefficiency, Lee did anything and everything on Sunday. The senior scored 18 points and grabbed six rebounds in 35 minutes. McIntosh was limited throughout before finding his stroke late. He had 16 points and seven rebounds.
“He had fight in him. Other guys did, but not like him today,” said Muller of Lee. “He brought us back to three or five [points], and they stretched it again. But, without his play, his competitiveness. I don’t know where we would have been tonight.”
Wichita State’s production was peppered among Frankamp, McDuffie, and Shamet. The trio combined for 49 points; Frankamp had 19, McDuffie finished with 16, and Shamet netted 14. Morris grabbed ten rebounds to go along with four points.
Wichita State, as the Missouri Valley Conference tournament champions, is automatically one of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
“It don’t matter who we play. It’s just a great feeling to know we’re in the tournament the whole week,” said McDuffie. “If we’d have lost, it would have been kind of stressful to think about the whole week about the loss. Now that we got this win, we can just work to get better.”
The Redbirds, on the other hand, will have to wait until Selection Sunday to find out their fate.
“It would mean a lot to me. I always dreamed about playing in the NCAA Tournament,” Lee said. “It would be a blessing to be in the tournament right now.”
CBS’ Selection Sunday Show will air March 12 at 5:30 p.m. EST.